21 Best CPA Exam Study Tips & Strategies To Implement Today To Pass The CPA Exam
Save 100+ Hours Of Study Time & Thousands Of Dollars In CPA Exam Expenses By Applying These PROVEN Study Tips & Tactics
By Bryan Kesler, CPA |
If you are brand new (or struggling) with the CPA exam process, you are in the right place as you start, study and PASS the CPA exam.
The CPA Exam is without a doubt the most difficult professional exam. What does this mean for you?
It means you should not re-create the CPA exam wheel when trying to figure out this "beast" of an exam by yourself.
That's why I put together 21 of my most valuable study tips that I learned while taking the CPA Exam.
Quick note, these tips and strategies are not my opinion or what I "think" will work for you.
I know that these study tactics work because I implemented them (and have taught them to thousands of CPA candidates around the world) and saved hundreds of hours of time and thousands in CPA exam expenses!
FYI - Feel free to steal and share any tips and strategies you see below :)
"The Uniform CPA Examination protects the public interest by helping to ensure that only qualified individuals become licensed as U.S. Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). Individuals seeking to qualify as CPAs – the only licensed qualification in accounting – are required to pass the CPA Examination."
I share 5 benefits of becoming a CPA in this CPAguide.TV Episode:
Are you ready to sign up for the CPA Exam? Then you need my CPA Exam Application Checklist to get started on the right foot.
Click the orange button below and I will send you the free PDF.
Just let me know your best email address so we know where to send it.
3. Expect To Study Between 100-200 Hours Per Section
It is recommended that you study for the CPA exam between 350-800 hours total for the CPA exam based on the suggestion of the CPA review courses.
When you add this to your full time job it can be difficult to imagine finding the time to study.
But here is the thing, right now you are probably thinking about spreading those hours out over 3-4 months per section so that you don't have to drastically change your lifestyle.
This is the wrong attitude.
Passing the CPA exam is all about maximizing your short term memory so the quicker you can sit for the exam the better.
This may sound counter intuitive but the less time you give yourself to study, the more pressure you are going to feel to get things done and the faster you will get through the material and the more fresh it will be on exam day.
Think of it this way.
If you give yourself 16 weeks to study you will find it difficult to motivate yourself to be is all out study mode because you have tons of time to get to it.
You will also have a much harder time remembering what you taught yourself in the early weeks because it will be stale by exam day and out of your short term memory.
Here is what I recommend when studying for the CPA exam:
Limit yourself to 8-12 weeks of study time per section, shoot for 8 weeks if you aren't working full time.
Cut out all of your distractions in your life
Prepare to eat, sleep and breathe the CPA exam
Remember the CPA exam is designed to mirror what you will experience during busy season so treat it the exact same way.
Plus a positive side effect is that your studying won't drag on for an eternity!
If you want to ensure you are studying the RIGHT way, I encourage you to take our free CPA Exam Study Personality quiz.
It's going to help you identify how you learn best and how much time to spend on various study methods.
A huge rookie mistake CPA candidates make is trying to plan out all four sections of the CPA exam far in advance.
PLEASE DON'T DO THIS!
Your journey to passing the CPA exam is a fluid process with many unexpected twists and turns.
It's not worth it to save a few bucks and be locked into taking all four sections in a row within 6 months.
Too much can go wrong and if the worst does happen you are locked into moving onto your next exam.
You want the freedom to be able to retake any section you may not pass as soon as possible while that information is still fresh in your mind.
I learned this the hard way and it created an avalanche of failure for me.
Please learn from my mistake and only sign up for one or two sections at a time.
You also don't have to schedule your exam until you are ready and if you have multiple Prometric centers in your area you can likely wait up until 5 days before you want to take the exam to schedule it.
Just be aware that spots may fill up quickly so I recommend scheduling at least 2 weeks out.
5 Simple Steps to Signing Up For The CPA Exam:
Signing up for the CPA exam doesn't have to be painful, follow these 5 steps and you will be set
1) Review Your Exam Requirements - refer below for specific state requirements
2) Submit your exam application and find a CPA review course that maximizes how you learn best
3) Request and forward your transcripts to your state board of accountancy
Pay your CPA Exam fees to receive your notice to schedule (NTS)
5) Schedule your exam at your local Prometric center
If you would like a more detailed checklist to make this process even easier, please download your Free CPA Exam Application Checklist PDF below:
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5. Plan For Your Journey To The Prometric Center (They Don't Mess Around)
Have you ever been to Fort Knox?
If not, you will have a somewhat similar experience visiting your local Prometric Testing center.
They take cheating that seriously (No Joke!).
Prometric is a national standardized test taking center that works with NASBA to proctor your exams.
Here is a quick list of everything you need to know before entering a Prometric Center:
2) No pen, paper or any other material
3) No electronic device whatsoever
No watches (no covert spying device)
TSA style ID check and scan (includes security wand check)
Additional Information Specific to CPA Candidates (SOURCE)
1) Bring two forms of ID that match your NTS (ID = Drivers License, valid credit card passport, etc...)
2) Arrive at least 30 minutes early to ensure you have time to sign in and go through the security process.
3) A locker will be provided for you to place all personal belongings.
What To Do Once You Start Your Exam (SOURCE)
Your exam will have a countdown timer for you to track your total time remaining
2) After each test-let you will be given the option to take a short break, but remember that the clock keeps ticking! Choose your time wisely.
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6. Never Try To Guess Your CPA Exam Score (Easier Said Than Done...)
It is not easy to understand how the CPA exam is graded. The best resource for understanding how the CPA exam is scored is at the following link provided by the AICPA.
The CPA exam is an extremely complex exam that has many different variables that can affect your score. Getting a 75 does not mean you got 75% of the questions correct! It is more of the percentile of where you scored compared to everyone else who took the exam. The following is my understanding of the factors that go into your exam:
When taking your exam there will be some "pre-test" questions which are essential questions that are being given a test run to see how test candidates score to them. These questions are not included in your score and are not graded.
Don't forget that the CPA exam is an adaptive test that will change in difficulty based on the questions you are answering correctly. So if you are answering the difficult questions correctly the next multiple choice section will contain increasingly difficult questions.
Points are given to multiple choice questions based on difficulty. So even though you are maybe getting several wrong in a difficult multiple choice section you still may receive more points than those test takers who did not advance to the more difficult multiple choice section but were still in a medium level. So don't feel discourage if you feel like the questions are insanely hard.
The reason I provided you with this information is to prove to you that there is absolutely no way you can know how well you scored on the exam (even if you walk out 100% sure you failed).
There are to many variables to take into account and if you start to try to calculate them in your head, you will lose valuable focus and motivation.
Just take your exam and immediately begin thinking about starting your next exam.
Think back to college and write down at least three of your study strengths and three weaknesses.
PRO TIP: Focus on identifying study activities that were efficient and helped you actually understand materials.
Example: I preferred to read the text and solve the problems on my own (class was NOT a learning experience for me) and I discovered that making in-depth outlines of my textbook was actually busy work and not productive studying.
Step 2: Are You A Visual Learner or Self-Studier?
Based on how you determined you studied best would you say that you prefer to study on your own and teach yourself the material OR do did you do your best learning in the classroom?
Step 3a: If You Are A Self-Studier...
If you determined you are more of a self-studier then you need to focus on finding a CPA review course that focuses on providing a solid textbook, pre-made flashcards, and tons of multiple choice and minimal video lectures.
I personally recommend the following CPA Review Courses if this describes you:
If you determined that you did your best learning in the classroom then you need to focus on finding a CPA review course that provides you with the BEST video lectures or possibly find a live/virtual class to attend, a program that links the multiple choice very well with the lectures, and a course that has an in-depth study planner to keep you structured.
If you fit this description best, then here are the CPA courses I recommend most:
Step 5: Try The CPA Review Courses You Have Identified
After identifying 2-3 CPA review courses that match how you learn best, give each course a trial run either by finding the free trials in my review or by using the free trial links of my 4 most recommended courses below:
Step 7: Sign Up For My Free CPA Exam Coaching Course To Learn How To Maximize Your CPA Review Course
Join my free Ultimate CPA Exam Guide and I will give you a PDF copy of my 7 Step Process to picking the Best CPA Review Course for you AND I will send you 100 multiple choice questions and answers from Roger CPA Review and my free CPA Exam Coaching Video Series. See you on the inside.
I treated the CPA exam like a college test! This meant I was going through the lectures + highlighting like a robot. Then I would read through the text and make any notes on the important concepts I saw, and then make my own flashcards on top of that.
I tried to memorize the entire textbook for every section! For most of us, this was no problem in college, because the tests were much MUCH less broad.
The CPA exam is a beast of an exam, unlike anything you have ever done before, and requires study tactics unlike anything you have had to perform.
The moment of clarity happened for me when I found out I had failed the 4th part of the CPA exam. I decided that this test was no joke, and if I was going to succeed I was going to have to drastically change my study method.
Before you read on below to find out about the changes I made that reduced my CPA exam study time by 100+ hours, I recommend you take my free CPA Exam Study Personality Quiz. This quiz will help tailor YOUR study tactics so that you can avoid busy work.
Please understand what worked for me may not work for you, my study personality quiz will bridge the gap and get you started with a tailored study approach based on your study personality.
As always, you need to determine how you learn best. I am not an auditory learner, I prefer to visually learn by reading and teaching myself, so I decided that it would be in my best interest to cut out the video lectures. I had also just graduated from college, so the materials were still fresh in my mind.
That being said, if for any reason you come across a topic that is too complex to teach yourself, or you find yourself spinning your wheels, then you NEED to go to the video lectures and see if their explanation helps you.
If that still doesn’t work then it is time to contact customer service or visit the forums for help.
Just remember that the CPA exam is so broad that it is not the most effective way of studying if you end up spending several hours on one topic, so pick your battles wisely.
RESULT: Saved me 15-20 hours per section (70 hours total from my review course)
#2 – Does Writing Out Your Own Flashcards Make Economical Sense?
Remember that as you study for the CPA exam that your MOST valuable resource is time.
I decided that I did not have enough time to make my own flashcards or have time to go through the text and make outlines of the important concepts. While I agree that I lost some of the benefits of making my own study materials, it did not outweigh the time I would save by buying pre-made flashcards.
The top review course companies know what the most important concepts are, so I think that the time they save you and the concepts they test you on made my decision totally worth it.
Wiley CPAexcel and Roger CPA have some of the best flashcards available on the market. I highly recommend using them.
RESULTS: Saved me around 1 hour per week for each section X 24 weeks (based on studying for 6 weeks per section) = approximately 25 hours
#3 – Don’t Spin Your Wheels on Practice Questions
Spend no more than 3-5 minutes on a multiple choice question. Use the analytics provided by your review course to measure how long on average you are spending on each multiple choice question and if it is longer than 5 minutes you need to find ways to speed up your test taking.
The goal being that you need to prepare yourself for the real CPA exam. The CPA exam is so incredibly broad that if you spend 15 minutes on one multiple choice question it just isn’t efficient in the broad scheme of things. Just keep moving and flag the question and save it for later so you can address it if you have time later on.
Spinning your wheels also makes you indecisive which can be very dangerous as well. The worst part of the CPA exam multiple choice questions are that there always seems to be 2 right answers. It is up to you to determine which one is most correct, because unfortunately there is no partial credit! I always found that going with my gut was always better than just sitting there for an extra 2-3 minutes second guessing myself. Don’t let this be you.
RESULT: Before I changed my study tactics, I typically answered 1,200 practice questions for each section at an average of 4-5 minutes per question. By making a concerted effort, I successfully shaved 30 seconds off the average time of each question which equates to 40 total hours saved (or 10 hours per section). This allowed me to spend that time researching why I got certain questions wrong and strengthening my knowledge of that section.
Total Time Saved Breakdown
Skipped Lectures and highlighting:
Saved 70 hours
Skipped making my own flashcards and outlines:
Saved 25 hours
Cut AVG time spent per question by 30 seconds:
Saved 40 hours
Total time saved:
Once I implemented these changes to my study schedule, my scores jumped 5-15 points per section! It is not because I was studying less, but because I was studying the way that works best for me. By cutting out all of the excess fat in my study schedule, I was studying more efficiently and the rate of my learning and retention skyrocketed!
Please understand that these tips worked for me, but they may not work for everyone. You know yourself better than anyone else, so please do yourself a favor and step back for a minute and look at how you are studying.
Do you see any inefficiencies or ineffective study activities that you are performing?
If so cut them out immediately and spend that time doing more productive studying that is actually going to help you learn the material. The review courses today try to cater to as many different types of people as possible, but you are unique. So don’t be afraid to do think outside the box like I did. The results can be amazing!
If you are afraid you are using the wrong CPA review course or just not happy with it, then you can always use my CPA Review Course Comparison Tool here to see if the way you learn best matches with your current review course.
If not and you are struggling to pass just like I did, then it might be time to make a change…
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9. Constantly Be Reviewing Everything You Have Learned
The #1 mistake I made while studying for the CPA exam is studying in a linear fashion.
Go through chapter 1, check
Move onto chapter 2, check
Continue onto chapter 3, check!
Repeat until final chapter AND freak out!
Forgot everything I learned in early chapters and have to scramble to re-learn right before exam
Even with today's advanced "adaptive" or "smart" learning technology that is being heavily marketed by all the major CPA review courses is not enough to save you from this linear study plan.
What's the solution?
A. B. R. - Always Be Reviewing
Setting aside just 15-30 minutes every other day to review will make a huge difference in how well you remember the material on exam day.
Ready to learn more about how you learn and how you should be studying?
Take my free CPA Exam study personality quiz to get started!
I would not be a CPA today if it wasn't for the flashcards that I used to study and memorize definitions.
I made the early mistake of trying to make my own flashcards which turned into busy work.
I found that the pre-made flashcards offered by various CPA review course companies work best and then when you see something that is tripping you up, that's when you make your own.
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11. Create A CPA Exam Final Review Study Funnel To DOMINATE On Exam Day [Most Crucial Step]
Without a doubt, the MOST crucial period of your journey to passing any exam is the final 14 days prior to your exam.
This is also known as your “Final Review Period.”
You need to have a plan of attack for how you are going to ensure you remember what you need to know on exam day.
Feeling overwhelmed about this process?
I’ve got your back!
Introducing the Final Review Study Funnel
I want to share with you a study tactic that helped me pass the CPA exam (and more importantly has helped hundreds of my students recall what they need to on exam day).
It’s called a Final Review Study Funnel which is part of my CPA exam coaching course Ultimate CPA Exam Guide or “UCEG”.
The entire concept behind this Final Review Study Funnel is for you to funnel out everything you already understand so that you can focus on topics you don’t understand that you will need to know for exam day.
This is a simple 14-day process that any accountant can implement.
Let’s get started!
Phase 1: 14-4 Days Before Exam
Your Final Review Study Funnel starts when you are 14 days out from your exam day.
At this point you should be through all your study materials and have a decent grasp on the material (assuming you have made time to review the topics as you progress).
Your goal in Phase 1 is NOT to learn new material, but to start reviewing everything you have learned.
There are four steps you need to follow in this process:
Step 1: Day 14 & 13 Before Exam
Take two comprehensive practice exams over EVERYTHING on days 14 & 13.
Pro Tip of The Day: For your practice exams, I’d take at least 100-120 multiple choice questions. Simulations or Essays aren’t an efficient way to study at this point in your Final Review Study Funnel.
Pro Tip #2: If you feel like you are starting to see the same multiple-choice questions over and over it might also be time to invest in some fresh multiple-choice questions.
I highly recommend the Gleim Megabank, it’s what I personally used to pass the CPA exam and will absolutely give you more than enough fresh questions to test your knowledge.
Once you complete your practice exam(s), look at your results in your analytics looking for trends in the areas that you scored weaker.
Any area you do not feel confident, record it and set aside an hour or two each day to deep dive into all those topics.
Step 3: Days 12-4 Before Exam
What does a Deep Dive look like?
I recommend that depending on your learning style, you find those topics in your text book, find the video lectures, or even utilize your flashcards or notes and use these resources to ensure you UNDERSTAND the material and not just MEMORIZE it.
When you understand the material, you will be able to find the right answer no matter what question is asked of you.
After you have reviewed these struggle topics then I would create another practice exam specifically over those struggle topics to ensure you helped your understanding.
Step 4: Days 12-4 Exam
Repeat steps 1-3 over and over until 3 days prior to your exam.
Phase 2: 3-2 Days Before Exam
By this point you will have taken close to a dozen multiple choice practice exams with an overall focus of identifying your weaker areas and you should be feeling confident.
Now it’s time to recreate the Prometric Center “Holy Cow This Is Actually Happening” Type Test Taking Experience.
Here’s what you need to do:
Lock yourself in your room for the allotted time for your exam.
Turn off your Cell Phone and close out of your social media on your computer and use this opportunity to do your best to create a truly simulated exam experience.
A great way to help you with this experience is to utilize the built in Exam Rehearsal feature that Gleim offers within each of their review courses.
If your test is broken into testlets, go through each testlet, double check your answers and then move onto the next testlet and don’t go back to the previous testlet and make changes just like you wouldn’t be able to do on your exam.
For essays and simulations follow exactly what you would be expected to do during the real exam as well.
Put pressure on yourself!
Taking professional exams is more than just about understanding the material it’s about being MENTALLY prepared as well.
Take these exams seriously.
Don’t get discouraged if during these practice exams you don’t receive a passing score.
Remember, there are so many variables going into the grading of your real exam and even some questions that aren’t graded at all!
Your grade on these practice exams is NOT an accurate representation of what your grade would be if it was the real thing.
Just focus on time management and mental prep during these Exam Rehearsals and forget the rest!
Phase 3: 1 Day Before Exam
The day of reckoning is upon us!
What should the final day before your exam look like?
Well here’s what I did.
I relaxed and took it easy.
I had a ritual of watching one of my favorite movies Wall Street to help pump me up.
I’d prepare a pre-exam playlist for my car ride over – mostly the original Rocky Soundtrack.
Then I would do some very light studying that involved reviewing some flashcards and re-reading my priority notes.
But that was it.
No practice exams no multiple choice or simulations.
At this point give your brain a well-deserved rest before exam day!
And most importantly you can rest easy knowing you just completed your Final Review Study Funnel and will be able to walk confidently into your Prometric Center and dominate your exam!
Wrapping It Up
The key to having a successful Final Review Study Funnel is understanding your study personality.
It will dictate which CPA exam resources you utilize and how you study.
If you have plans to take the CPA exam, I put together a free CPA Exam Study Personality Quiz for CPA candidates at any stage in their journey.
It’s going to help you determine your learning style which is going to dictate HOW you study and how you utilize your CPA Review Course.
This not only applies to your Final Review Study Funnel but also during your day to day study routine.
13: Don't Spend Too Much Time On Practicing Simulations
Simulations are random, are all designed differently and are typically focused on a specific topic.
For this reason I don't recommend spending significant amount of time studying practice simulations.
You absolutely need to use practice sims for time management, to understand the structure and the design of how to answer simulations efficiently, but using them as a study tool to learn the material is not efficient.
Instead of taking hundreds of practice sims you are better off focusing on taking as many multiple choice as you can and focusing on the explanations for why the question is right or wrong.
You will cover a wider variety of topics and it will help you understand the material much more effectively than taking hundreds of practice simulations.
A common misconception is that the only tools you need to pass the CPA exam are hard work and a solid CPA Review Course.
The problem with ONLY using these two tools is that you inevitably start re-creating the wheel.
Meaning that you have to figure the following out all by yourself...
Still have to figure out how to study the right way
How to sign up for the CPA exam
How to recover from failure (or passing) a section of the CPA exam
Teach yourself complex accounting topics that you may not have learned in college
Learn how to manage your stress levels
Bottle up all your CPA exam emotions because no one else understands what you are going through
And that's just half of what most CPA candidates experience!
What most CPA candidates don't realize is that there are CPA exam coaches available who can guide you through all of these stressful side effects of taking the CPA exam.
I help you find a CPA exam coach I put together a free CPA exam coaching series which is a collection of videos and emails to help get you started on the right foot taking the CPA exam, recover from failure or just optimize how you study better.
It's free to get started and all you need to do is complete a quick 4 question CPA exam study personality quiz so that I can best help you with where you currently are in the CPA exam process.
I struggled for 2+ years and through 4 failures in a row before finally passing the MOST difficult test in the professional world. I learned EXACTLY what works and what doesn't and I want to help you avoid the same mistakes that I made that cost me hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars!